In the run up to Christmas I thought we’d do something a little different, so over the next 13 days I’m going to post a serial by Harry Harrison which originally appeared in the British comic Boy’s World in 1963. It’s a cliffhanger in the old tradition, with plenty of action, reminiscent of the Stainless Steel Rat series.
The complete story runs to around 20,000 words, which is about a third of a 1960s novel!
Harry wrote another two Merlo, the Magician stories for Boy’s World which were in comic format. The series was then, I think, continued by Ken Bulmer.
Spell of Magic was the first Merlo story, and in Harry’s original manuscript the character was actually named Merlin, but as Harry recalled in an interview: “They changed the name to Merlo: they didn’t want to defame the name of Merlin!”
Spell of Magic – Part 1
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008
Merlo sat with one leg dangling over the ten-storey drop to where the ocean lashed the jagged rocks below. In his hand he held a thin thread, woven from one of the new miracle plastics. In another moment, Merlo’s life would be hanging from it. The knot where he had tied the thread to the radiator inside his hotel room held firm when he put his weight against it. It would do.
Carefully, so that no sudden jerk would come on the strand, he eased himself out of the window until he was hanging from the sill by one tanned and muscled hand. Then, very carefully, he loosened his fingers so that his weight shifted to his other hand, and on to the strange gun-like device he held there. It had a stirrup-shaped handle that he held and a round case above, out of which came the gleaming strand of thread. He hung from the handle now, his feet swinging free over the blackness of that awful drop. Below, in the Bay of Naples, he could hear the pounding of the waves. Merlo ignored it, concentrating all his attention on the thin thread from which he hung. It had a breaking strength of three hundred pounds … and any sharp tugs might snap it. He gently pushed a button on the handle and the reel inside began to turn, letting out more thread. Slowly, he dropped down the smooth wall of the hotel.
He passed a lighted window on the floor below, soundlessly as a ghost. Inside it, a man stood before a mirror adjusting his tie. He never noticed the dark shape that slid past the window and was gone. Then Merlo was on a level with the window on the floor below, and his feet touched soundlessly on the window-sill. The window was closed and dark.
Balanced easily on the four-inch wide ledge, Merlo stopped the unreeling thread, then cut it with a knife-edge built into the handle. For an instant there was a tiny flare of flame from his gas lighter. Flame leapt up the thread, which burned to ash in an instant. It blew away, leaving no trace.
Merlo pocketed the thread machine, and slid the window open. Silently as a shadow he slipped into the room. It was the bedroom of a suite, and from the partly-open door of the sitting-room came a shaft of light and a murmur of voices. Still moving without a sound, Merlo went to the door and looked in. He smiled grimly. He had arrived just in time – the vultures were gathering.
There were four men in the room. Two of them looked like the professional gunmen that they were. Hired killers. The other two were a cut better, though not much. A fat man sat at the table across from a thin, grey rat of a man named Ravali. He was a gang leader, a member of the Mafia, the dreaded international crime syndicate, and the man whom Merlo had been watching for weeks … waiting for this meeting.
“Here they are,” the fat man said, handing a small box across the table.
“Good!” Ravali whispered, licking his lips and twitching his moustache like a rat. “They have been a long time coming.”
Both men spoke in Italian, which was one of the half-dozen languages that Merlo spoke as fluently as his native English. He smiled when he saw the box – his weeks of waiting had not been in vain. While he memorised the positions of the men, the table and the box, he slipped what looked like an ordinary fountain pen from the pocket of his dark suit. When he twisted the barrel of the pen, the end flipped open and the pocket clip stuck down like a trigger – which it was. For the ‘pen’ was a small but deadly single-shot pistol. Sighting along two grooves in the top of the pen, Merlo pulled the tiny trigger.
He had aimed at no human target, but at the tiny ‘off’ button of the light switch across the room. The gun cracked and the room instantly plunged into darkness. Merlo threw open the door and dived in. With a single jump he reached the table and grabbed the box. Ravali still had his hand around it, but his fingers sprang open when Merlo tapped his wrist with a sharp judo blow.
“Someone’s here!” Ravali squealed. “He’s got the shipment!”
A gun blasted a tongue of flame through the darkness and strong hands grabbed at Merlo. He planted a fist into a solid body and the hands were gone. Other fingers brushed him, but they were too late. He was back through the door into the bedroom. Slamming it behind him, Merlo sprinted through the other door into the hall. The corridor was empty and, with the package safely in his pocket, he ran towards the turning that led to the lifts and the stairs.
Behind him a gun boomed and a slug whined over his head. One of the thugs had some brains, and instead of following into the bedroom had opened the other door into the hall. Another shot followed the first, thudding into the wall near Merlo’s head. Then he was around the turning.
Without slowing his pace, he tore off his black jacket, turned it inside out, and put it back on. It had become yellow tweed. A beret and dark-rimmed glasses were in the pocket and he put them on. Skidding to a halt in front of the door to the stairs, Merlo ripped the black plastic coverings from his shoes to reveal them as hideous orange. Still kneeling, he stuffed the covers into his pocket, pushed the door open and fell backwards just as the first thug skidded around the corner, gun ready.
“Stop him!” Merlo gasped in Italian. “A man… in a black suit… knocked me over, ran down the stairs!”
Without giving Merlo a second glance, the man pounded down the stairs. Merlo smiled, brushed himself off as he rose, and went down in the lift. No one noticed him nor recognised him as he crossed the lobby. A cab was waiting outside.
“Rondinella Club,” he said to the driver and sank back into the soft seat.
The cab stopped by a large sign that read: MERLO THE MAGICIAN – MASTER OF THE DARK ARTS! And in smaller letters, Every Night! It was decorated by a large photo of him, without the dark-rimmed glasses and wearing evening clothes. Under the sign stood a small figure who waved to Merlo as he stepped out of the cab. It was Tommy, Merlo’s assistant, who had been training as a jockey before he met the magician. Tommy looked no older than twelve – but he was actually nineteen.
As Merlo walked into the club with Tommy, he reflected how valuable Tommy’s youthful appearance was to him not only in his magician’s act, but in other ways. For, like Merlo, Tommy Archer had a double role in life.
“How did you make out?” Tommy asked, as they made their way to Merlo’s dressing-room.
Merlo turned on the lights, in the empty dressing-room and closed the door. “Take a look at that,” he said, handing Tommy the mysterious package.
Tommy stripped off the brown paper covering to reveal a rough wooden box held shut by a thick rubber band.. He took this off and turned the box out on to the glass top of the dressing-table. Sparkling stones poured out, reflecting the light with dazzling brilliance.
“Wow!” Tommy said in a hushed voice, holding one of the gems up and admiring the rainbow twinkle. “Diamonds!”
“More than just plain diamonds,” Merlo said. “They are cut diamonds, worth a small fortune anywhere in the world. Do you remember those rough diamonds a native smuggler tried to sell us in South Africa?”
“Sure. They looked just like any pebble you could find on the beach. Dirty little rocks.”
“Right – and that gives us a mystery that we are going to have to solve.” The smile vanished from his tanned, hawk-like face and Merlo was suddenly serious. “We’ve been lucky, Tommy. So far, no one has suspected that a magician and his assistant might be working for Interpol. We’ve managed to get into a lot of places the normal police never reach. We found who was buying the rough diamonds and smuggling them out of Africa, and we even found out the name of the man here in Italy who is smuggling them into Europe. But our information is not complete. The most important part is missing. Somewhere between Africa and Naples these rough diamonds were cut and polished.”
Tommy frowned down at the gems. “I don’t dig you! As long as we find who the smugglers are, what difference does the polishing make?”
“The big difference. Every diamond cutter in the world, and there aren’t many, is licensed and well-known. None of them would cut stolen gems. Yet these diamonds were cut. How? Where? By whom? Until we find out the answers to those questions we don’t know enough to move. Interpol can only pick up a few of the small-time smugglers who won’t be able to tell us a thing…”
“…while the boss, and the real gang, and those invisible diamond cutters are laughing up their sleeves at us!” Tommy interrupted.
“Perfectly correct!” agreed Merlo. “So now, we are going to find out how…”
“No, you’re not!” a voice grated from the suddenly-open door. One of the gunmen from the hotel room stood there, a large automatic in his fist. It was aimed at Merlo’s back.
The gunman fired twice. And the shots were as loud as a cannon’s in the small room.
To be continued…